The Zero-Carbon Economy’s Possible Land Footprint

We need to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, which will require an enormous transition in how we generate energy.  While many people support renewables, they have little concept of how much land deploying renewables will require.  For example, a 200-megawatt wind farm might require 19 square miles of land to replace a natural gas plant with the same generating capacity, that fits onto a single city block.

To fulfill President Biden’s goal of an emission-free grid by 2035, the U.S. needs to increase its carbon-free capacity by at least 150%. Expanding wind and solar by 10% annually until 2030 would require a chunk of land equal to the state of South Dakota, according to Bloomberg and Princeton University estimates. By 2050, when Biden wants the entire economy to be carbon free, the U.S. will need up to four additional South Dakotas to develop enough clean power to run all the electric vehicles, factories and more.

To be clear, Biden’s plan doesn’t need to entirely rest on wind and solar. Nuclear energy, which requires far less space, is also emission free. Same for hydroelectric power. Plus, wind farms can be installed at sea. Solar panels work wonderfully on rooftops. And plenty of companies are placing bets that fossil-fuel plants can be retrofitted to burn hydrogen or equipped with systems to capture their carbon dioxide emissions.

Estimates vary widely on how much land the U.S. will need to satisfy Biden’s clean-energy ambitions but, regardless, the U.S. will need to rethink land use for an emissions-free future. This article provides some graphical illustrations of how researchers at Princeton University’s Net-Zero America project estimate it can be done and what the land implications of those pathways would be.

Read Dave Merrill’s article and see his graphical analysis in “The U.S. Will Need a Lot of Land for a Zero-Carbon Economy,” published by Bloomberg Green.